“Let me tell you now about the single biggest lie in politics: It is that Republicans are the party of the rich. What complete nonsense. Do you know that under President Obama, the top 1 percent, those millionaires and billionaires that the president loves to demagogue, the top 1 percent are currently earning the highest percentage of our national income since 1928? Listen, when the government expands its control of the economy, the rich do fine. Five years ago if you had a private jet you’re still flying the private jet. Who are the losers? Who are the people who are getting hammered by the Obama economy? It’s the most vulnerable among us.”

— Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), speech in Iowa, Oct. 26, 2013

This may seem like an old quote, but it’s a regular part of Cruz’s stump speech to declare that the “single biggest lie in politics” is that Republicans “are the party of the rich.”

We stumbled across this interesting observation just this week when Alex Moe of NBC News tweeted about Cruz’s March 18 speech in Mason City, Iowa.

We could not find a clip of that speech, but we found three other versions of the same talking point, including an extended discussion on Reason TV in January.

Here at The Fact Checker, we don’t like to use the word “lie” — it seems rather pejorative — but a politician describing something as the “biggest lie” is irresistible. What’s the basis for this claim?

The Facts

If you listen to Cruz, he never really explains why he believes this is the “biggest lie.” Instead, he attacks President Obama for presiding over an increase in income inequality and says that the president’s policies, such as the health-care law, have negatively affected “young people, Hispanics, African Americans, single moms.”

In the Reason interview, Cruz said:

I try to look at every policy issue from the perspective of my dad in 1957 washing dishes, making 50 cents an hour. If my dad were washing dishes today, the odds are very, very high he would have lost his job because of the crushing taxes and regulations that are hammering small business. Two-thirds of all new jobs come from small businesses.
If my dad hadn’t lost his job, the odds are overwhelming he would have had his hours forcibly reduced to 28 or 29 hours a week because the threshold for Obamacare is 30 hours a week. And, he wouldn’t have been able to pay his way through the University of Texas at 29 hours a week.  He wouldn’t have been able to feed his kid at 29 hours a week. And if he doesn’t have that first job washing dishes, he doesn’t get his second job working as a cook. Which means he doesn’t get his third job as a teaching assistant, which means he doesn’t get his fourth job as a computer programmer at IBM.
We need to be focusing on how policies impact those who are struggling, and every policy we think about and talk about should make it easier for those who are struggling to climb up the economic ladder and achieve the American Dream.

One specific point that Cruz makes is about the Dodd-Frank banking law, which he asserts had the “intended consequence” of making big banks bigger and small banks disappear because only larger banks could deal with the law’s regulations. Cruz appears to associate big banks with the wealthy.

In essence, Cruz suggests that Republicans focus more on the needs of small businesses, which in turn lift up the poor.

“It’s a response to a common claim by liberals that Republicans only care about defending the wealthy,” Cruz spokeswoman Catherine Frazier said. “The senator’s point is that the core of Republican principles are not about propping up the wealthy, but about helping the little guy — not through a government handout, but through empowering those with less to climb up the economic ladder one rung at a time. That is accomplished by scaling back big government, keeping power with local and state governments so that the private sector can thrive.”

But what do the data show? Cruz said “of the rich,” which certainly suggests voting patterns. Here’s an interactive chart of partisanship by income group in 2013-14 Washington Post-ABC polling, provided by our colleague, polling analyst Scott Clement. The numbers are based on nearly 10,000 interviews conducted over the past year.

The data show wealthy Americans are not universally Republican, though they tend to lean and vote that way.

While Cruz says the image of Republicans as the party of the rich is a Democratic lie, it is also widely believed by Americans. The 2012 exit poll found 53 percent said GOP nominee Mitt Romney’s policies generally favored the rich, 34 percent the middle class and 2 percent the poor; for Obama, just 10 percent thought his policies favored the rich, 44 percent the middle class and 31 percent the poor.

Similarly, here are the results of a CNN/ORC International poll, conducted Jan. 31-Feb. 2, that asked:  Do you think the policies of the Democratic/Republican party generally favor the rich, favor the middle class, or favor the poor?

Dems        GOP
Favor rich      30%        69%
Middle class    36           23
Poor                   30            3
No opin               3            4

Finally, since Cruz is arguing that Republican policies are better for the poor and Democratic policies tilt toward the rich, we sought out the source of his statistic about the top 1 percent earning the highest percentage of our national income since 1928 — Prof. Emmanuel Saez of the University of California at Berkeley.

“Overall, if you look at the full century of evidence, the rich do better under Republicans (or least Republicans put in place deregulation+less progressive taxation that allow the rich to thrive later on),” Saez said in an e-mail. “That said, there are exceptions. Since 2009, the recovery has been skewed dramatically toward the rich. Obama’s policies most likely to affect the income gap (higher taxes on the rich, financial regulations, Obamacare) don’t kick in till 2013 or 2014 so you can’t blame those here.”

Saez suggested we contact Prof. Larry M. Bartels, of Vanderbilt University, who he said has done the most comprehensive examination of the issue.

Bartels provided two interesting charts, showing income growth between 1948 and 2012 and between 1982 and 2012, and the differences between Democratic and Republican presidents. (Caution: distinctions between presidential terms are somewhat artificial, as it can take years for certain policies to have an effect.)

“I think the data support the view that Republican presidents have tended to do much better (with respect to income growth) for affluent families than for middle-class or (especially) poor families,” he said. The second chart was provided, he said, because “some people argue that the parties (and/or the American economy) in the post-Reagan era are significantly different than they were in the first half of the post-war era.”

The wealthy tend to do well under either party, whereas the poor and middle class appear to do better under Democrats.

Update: After this column appeared, Frazier, the Cruz spokeswoman, provided an additional comment:

It’s a lie to call Republicans the party of the rich because conservative policies are explicitly designed to help the poor climb up the economic ladder. The Democrats, on the other hand, are directly responsible for exacerbating income inequality in this country with policies that keep the rich rich and keep the poor poor. Look no further than the strong economic recovery under Reagan, a conservative Republican, versus President Obama, a liberal Democrat.
Under President Obama’s so–called ‘recovery,’ median American household income has fallen by $2,380 or 4.4 percent, after having fallen by 1.8 percent during the recession, and there is a 4.5 million jobs gap between the Obama recovery and the average post-1960 average recovery. Under Reagan’s recovery, household median income rose 2.1 percent by the end of his first term and grew for every demographic category for the rest of his presidency. Also, over the same comparable period, a Reagan Recovery would have produced 7 million more jobs.
It’s a shame that rather than expressing any curiosity about the liberal policies that are directly killing jobs, opportunities, and promoting inequality in this country, this so-called fact-check seems committed to perpetuating a false myth created by the Democrats purely for political gain.

The Pinocchio Test

Frazier argued that we are looking at this wrong.

  1. “This is not about who votes for who — it’s an argument that Republican policies can help those with less more than Democrat policies.”
  2. “We aren’t about public opinion polls, but making an argument that individuals are empowered to thrive more under Republican policies than Democrat policies.”
  3. “This isn’t about rich faring better under Republicans or Democrats — the rich fare better when government is big. We argue that the poor have a better chance of succeeding under Republican policies of smaller government.”

But, as always, the burden is on the person making the claim. One could have the opinion that Republican policies will be better for the poor, and obviously Cruz believes that.

But, without more evidence, Cruz simply can’t pair it with a sweeping statement that saying Republicans are the party of the rich is “the biggest lie” when decades of economic data show the poor do better under Democrats, that the rich tend to vote Republican and that most Americans believe Republican policies favor the rich. We note that he never makes an affirmative case for why Republicans are not the party of the rich; he simply knocks Democrats. (We have not fact checked the data provided by Cruz’s staff in the updated comment, but a discrete comparison between Reagan and Obama, while ignoring the records of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, appears too narrow when comparing Democrats and Republicans.)

Indeed, it appears likely that Cruz’s “biggest lie in politics” is actually the truth. We can’t quite go all the way to Four Pinocchios, given that this could be viewed as an opinion, but Cruz is going to need better data before tossing around dramatic claims of lies.

Three Pinocchios

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